We rabbis think about lots of things: God and Torah, life and death… and, more recently, Zoom.
Since this pandemic has hit and we have had to close the physical doors of our synagogues, many of us have moved onto virtual platforms. It’s all Zoom, all the time. Just last week, I was on a Zoom meeting with 300 rabbis from across North America, organized by the Reform movement to teach us — wait for it — how to Zoom. Clergy groups on Facebook include posts from rabbis and pastors with nightmares of accidentally leading online services in their pajamas — or worse, that their spouse or children will walk by naked. Like every other professional in these strange times, we discuss whether you can wear sweatpants with your suit jacket; the guilty pleasure of having the power to mute everyone; and the pleas with our internet companies to speed up our home connections.
I was feeling proud of our team’s efforts to move classes and services online, when I read something sobering on the clergy group, from a colleague in a place where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. “You spend the first week or two transitioning online,” she wrote, “and then you can’t maintain it because you are overwhelmed with funerals.”
Like many of us, I am afraid of what this pandemic may bring. I think of the doctors and nurses on the front lines, and I pray that they are able to succeed in their work such that the next front line is not at graveside. Together with the Montreal Board of Rabbis, I have been part of urging people not to gather for services or Passover seders, in hopes of flattening the curve. We have already experienced the heartbreak of funerals with social distancing, with few or no mourners present, unable to receive a simple touch for comfort and going back to a shiva with no visitors. This is quickly becoming our new normal. I worry how long it will last, and the future into which we will emerge.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to inhabit the present moment. There’s a commentary on Exodus 24:12 where Moses stands at Mount Sinai, which asks why the text asserts — seemingly redundantly — that God told Moses to come up the mountain, and be there. The answer? It is easy to stand somewhere with your body and be somewhere else with your mind: regretting the past, fearing the future. Especially with the world changing by the minute, with a combination of a 24-hour news cycle and a wildly contagious virus, it is hard to take a breath and reflect on the moment we are in. And yet that is precisely what is called for.
And so, at this particular moment, I am loving the community we are building online. It is the silver lining to the terrible cloud we are under. I love it for teaching, and I especially love it for services. For many of my more traditional rabbinic colleagues, an online Shabbat service is of course unimaginable. Having lived a halakhically-observant life for many years, I can see the value — especially now — of closing down our screens for the 25 hours of Shabbat. And yet I am so grateful, at this moment, to be part of a community that encourages us to use all the tools at our disposal to connect.
Here is what I love:
I love seeing the faces of our community. Being online means that people can join in who are geographically distant. And so, along with our regulars, we see the student who went on to do graduate work in Edinburgh, or another who is serving at Hillel in Atlanta; a congregant’s son who joins in from Ottawa, holding up the phone so his elderly mother in Montreal can hear. Being online also means that people can connect who were isolated long before this crisis: our homebound elderly; those with limited mobility; and those with compromised immunity. I am also seeing people who are new to the synagogue or exploring Judaism for the first time, able to dip a toe in our services from the safety of home.
I love hearing the voices of our community. Being online means we can hear the beautiful voice of our high holy day cantorial soloist from his home in Chicago, alongside our other talented musical leaders, singing their hearts out from their living rooms here in Montreal. Being online means that the congregant whose beloved uncle died in Belgium, and who couldn’t attend his uncle’s funeral, can share some words about him and say kaddish, and hear everyone’s amen.
I love the backdrop I have of our sanctuary bima, behind me as we pray. It’s a little cheesy, but it warms my heart, and serves as a reminder of our synagogue home. I think it does the same for those taking part. It also reminds me that this is a service, not a meeting or a class or the thousand other things I am doing online each day. It gives me a sense of our sacred space, and the hope that we will return to it soon.
At the same time, I love seeing other people’s living spaces. I love the dogs who jump onto laps and the cats who perch on shoulders. I even love my own cat, who has decided that the Aleinu prayer is the perfect time to attack my tzitzit (despite otherwise socially distancing as only cats can, bemoaning that we are all home). I love the person who puts on makeup before she turns her video on; the person who picks up phone calls or eats while on camera; the parent whose kid unmutes them at exactly the wrong moment. I love how human we all are.
In our pre-pandemic language, we called these gatherings “virtual.” But right now, they are absolutely real. Real opportunities to sing and to pray, to mourn and give thanks. Real opportunities to see each other’s faces and spaces and remember that we may be isolated, but we are not alone. “Synagogue” comes from the Greek words syn agogos, to bring together. At this moment, Zoom is our synagogue. And I love that it is a place we can meet.
“Make me a sanctuary,” God says, “and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The place matters, but the people matter more. By the end of Exodus, the sanctuary is built, and God’s presence manifests on it as a cloud. Here we all are now, together in the cloud.